Author's note: names and circumstances have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
When I was a kid, my cousin Helen and I were like peas and carrots. She was (I guess "is"? More about that in a second, I promise) about a year older than I was. We were besties.
Then the unthinkable happened: her parents got divorced and so did mine. She was my father's brother's daughter, and she went with her mother, and I went with mine. When I went with my mother, I had very little contact with many members of my father's family, sadly enough.
Several years passed and I moved to Texas when I was 11 with my Mom, my sister, and my grandmother. Any hope that I might have had of contacting Helen, I lost.
That summer, though, I came up to visit my dad and his new wife, Marianne. During that visit, a mutual cousin of ours, Jacob, was having his first birthday party. Helen was invited, and so was I. I remember playing frisbee in the backyard of Jacob's mom's house with her.
And we fell out of contact again.
The thing that has complicated this whole thing is that I have always gotten the feeling that talking about ex-wives was verboten in my family. This might not have been true, but it was just the feeling I'd gotten: two of my cousins didn't even know they had a brother from a previous relationship until one of them bumped into him at college. COLLEGE.
So, I kind of danced around the topic whenever I would see my uncle. Besides, he had remarried to a wonderful woman whom I love dearly and I didn't want to hurt her feelings. But I really wanted to know if anyone had heard from her.
I got brave enough to ask about her once when my need to know and to let her know I was thinking of her overpowered my awkwardness/shame/fear of angering someone.
I'm not sure if this is what happened, but I feel as if I got a rather curt response: "She's fine," or something similar. The conversation moved to another topic, and I never brought it up again.
So I tried to do it myself. I did internet searches, I tried to send up smoke signals, I did everything but drive around the country from town to town asking if they knew Helen.
The problem was that I was spelling her name incorrectly.
And we have a common surname (I've half-jokingly told people that you can't throw a stone in the mid-West US without hitting someone with our surname).
In fact, there is an actress with a name very similar to hers and every time I tried looking for Helen, this actress would pop up.
A couple of weeks ago, Helen contacted me. For the first time in 30-mumble years.
I was awash in emotion. I didn't know what to do or what to say.
At first, I wasn't sure it was her. She's been married, so her last name isn't the same as I remember it. But she introduced herself as my counsin and the daughter of my uncle, so I could identify her.
We chatted over Facebook Messenger for a few minutes, and set up a time for me to call her.
That day, about a half an hour later, I stood at the bus stop sobbing for reasons that still aren't fully clear to me.
On the pre-arranged day, I called her and we talked for four hours. I told her about what I'd been doing, and she told me about what she's been doing.
She's now a single mom of a pretty girl named Eva. Helen and her daughter have lived in Colorado, New York, and now Florida.
She also has MS, and has just recently gotten over a really bad spell where she was hospitalized for over a month.
She said something to me that kinda stung: about how much I take my (relative) health for granted and that I really shouldn't because it could all be taken away in an instant. It has given me something to think about. The problem is (and always has been with me) that I've gotta stop thinking about it and start doing something about it.